By Peter Montague

How can environmental justice advocates win in the 1990s?

Will the techniques of the 1970s work, when lobbying Congress resulted in passage of a dozen environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act? Probably not. This Congress hardly seems in a mood to pass new legislation to protect people or wildlife.

Will the techniques of the 1980s work? During the '80s, activists learned to use visible (and photogenic) protests--combined with the issuance of well-researched reports--as a way of getting their story into the mainstream media. Publicity sometimes led to the collapse of bad projects (such as nuclear power plants and solid waste incinerators) or at least to compromises and improvements in bad projects.

Certainly these publicity techniques may still have some merit in particular instances, but mostly they don't seem to work any more. Therefore the '90s require something different. The '90s require the building of a large base of support among people who are being harmed or frightened or in some way screwed by "the system." And those people have to be convinced that their support will lead to some real demands for real change--not just another law that can't (or won't) be enforced, not just another picture on page 28 of the newspaper.

As the big environmental organizations have started emulating corporate polluters in almost every way, activist-oriented people have become disgusted and have turned away from them--with good reason. So something new is needed for winning in the '90s.

As the environmental justice movement meets in Baton Rouge March 15-17 to discuss a strategy for ending the poisoning of Americans by dioxin (see "Paper Mill Waste and Declining Sperm Counts, Progressive Populist, February 1996), it makes sense to think generally about campaigning in the '90s.

Take for example a campaign style developed by Food & Water, Inc., in Walden, Vermont. To defeat food irradiation (the proposal to zap food with large quantities of radiation, as a preservative), Food & Water placed placards in health food stores around the country, and they mailed out hundreds of thousands of "pledge cards," asking people to send back the cards, pledging that they would take several actions to prevent the irradiation of the American food supply.

The goal of the campaign was to stop food irradiation--not to "regulate" it or "control" it, but to kill it, plain and simple. Tens of thousand of people sent back pledge cards, often with a hand-written note, such as "Great! Finally someone who is unwilling to compromise! Count me in!"

Food & Water sees the American people divided into three groups: ones, twos and threes.

The threes wear black hats. They are the environmental destroyers, and we all know who they are. Although they personally may be very nice people who are merely trapped inside a corporate structure that has deprived them of the freedom to make decisions based on their own consciences, from the viewpoint of campaigning for environmental justice, they are hopeless and should be ignored.

The twos are "on the fence." They are often good-hearted people who "want more information." They are not ready to act. They want to be convinced. These people, too, are hopeless from the viewpoint of campaigning in the '90s. They too should be ignored. Talking to them or sending them information will sap precious resources and will not lead to any action. (If a two is in a position of power, such as a reporter, it may be worthwhile spending some time trying to convince him or her --but ordinary twos should be ignored by campaigners.)

Ones are people who "get it" and are ready to take action. These are the people who mail back the pledge cards--especially those who write personal notes on the cards. These are the "troops" for a campaign. Their names go into a database. When asked, they will write a letter, make a phone call, or take some other action.

What do the troops do? In the case of food irradiation, Food & Water threatened to boycott supermarkets that said they would place irradiated food on their shelves. Furthermore, Food & Water threatened to boycott particular food producers who were leaning toward adopting food irradiation, such as Frank Perdue, the chicken magnate. Food & Water asked ones to phone Mr. Perdue explaining that they were about to start a national boycott of Perdue products, starting with a picket line at their local grocery store.

After a few dozen phone calls, Mr. Perdue did an about-face on food irradiation and wrote Food & Water a letter pledging to abandon irradiation plans.

This strategy has another component: purchased media. Food & Water hires advertising agencies and publicists to produce print ads and radio spots. The results are slick, professional work. The print ads appear in such places as the New York Times and in industry newspapers and magazines read by executives of supermarkets and food-industry trade associations.

The ads are blunt and hard-hitting. The ads send several messages, in addition to whatever appears in the text: They convey that Food & Water is sophisticated, savvy, aggressive, capable, and well-heeled. They convey that a serious campaign--including punishing boycotts--has begun. And they convey a sense that there is more to come.

Radio spots are mass-produced on audio tape, and are mailed to several thousand executives in the food industry, with a note saying, "You should listen to this tape. We plan to run it on radio stations in your area soon, unless you pledge to turn your back on irradiated food." The tape explains in 30 seconds why food irradiation is dangerous and how a supermarket boycott can succeed.

Naturally, the executives do listen to the tapes, and they immediately recognize that their slim profit margin is about to disappear. (Supermarkets run on a 1% to 2% profit margin, so even a modestly successful boycott can throw them into the red.) Suddenly, irradiated food doesn't look as profitable as it used to.

Taking the Food & Water pledge begins to make sense. The only food irradiation plant ever built was called Vindicator, in Florida, and as a result of Food & Water's campaign, Vindicator went bankrupt. There are now rumors of new plans to irradiate food in Illinois, but for now Food & Water has a total victory.

The basic technique that worked was forcing the food industry to adopt Food & Water's position, thus giving Food & Water economic clout that it otherwise lacked. Now Food & Water has taken on pesticides, using the same strategy.

The goal is to end pesticide use on food. Not regulate it. Not reduce it. End it. Pledge cards have gone out to hundreds of thousands of people, and professionally done placards are appearing near the check-out counters at health food stores across the country. The ones are being identified.

Simultaneously, a media campaign has begun. This summer, ads began appearing in the New York Times, sponsored by Food & Water and by Environmental Research Foundation. The ads were written and produced by the advertising firm Montague &, in Westport, Conn. The first two ads ran in the New York Times and didn't seem to attract much notice. The third ad ran in Supermarket News December 11, 1995, and it got the food industry's attention.

The ad is dominated by a large black silhouette of an assault rifle. The headline says, "More people are killed by their salad." The text reads, "The assault rifle ban is a good law, and it will save hundreds of lives. But every year, literally thousands of men, women, and children die from a silent and invisible assault: Toxic pesticides on fruits and vegetables. So we've launched a nationwide campaign to alert food industry professionals and everyday consumers to the dangers of toxic pesticides. As we all work hard to promote the increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables for better health, we had better make sure that the produce is really healthy. And that means produce that is free of toxic pesticides. To join us, or for more information on what you can do right now, call 1-800-EAT-SAFE. Because telling children to eat their vegetables shouldn't be a death sentence."

The ad ran in Supermarket News December 11th. The Packer, another food industry newspaper, refused to run the ad. However, on December 18, The Packer wrote a news story announcing that the ad had run in Supermarket News, thus conveying to food industry executives the very message that the ad was intended to convey. A week later The Packer reported that "three major produce industry associations wasted no time" in responding to the ad.

The Packer reported that the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) had faxed the ad to all of its "retailer and service wholesaler members"--thus spreading the message further inside the industry. The ad space had been purchased as a "two for one holiday special."

Supermarket News readers complained about the ad, and the News decided not to run the ad a second time; they also did not charge Food & Water for the first placement, so the ad ran free. On January 3rd, the PMA announced they had formally requested the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Food & Water and Environmental Research Foundation for "unfair and deceptive advertising." The PMA asked the FTC to "enjoin" further dissemination of the ad, and to enter a "cease and desist order declaring the Food & Water advertisement to be unfair and deceptive." The PMA has further asked the FTC to "issue a cease and desist order to prohibit Food & Water, Inc. from representing, directly, or indirectly, that produce treated with agricultural chemicals in compliance with EPA regulations is unsafe."

Michael Colby, executive director of Food & Water, responded saying, "1996 is going to be filled with new ads and efforts to tell people at the grass roots about pesticides and chemical residues." Colby promised radio ads targeted at seven supermarket chains: Shaw's, Grand Union, Winn-Dixie, Kroger, Hy-vee, Safeway and Albertson's. The aim is to mobilize ones to pressure their supermarket managers to offer pesticide-free (and preferably locally-grown) foods, thus putting "market forces" to work protecting human health and the environment (while helping local farmers and the local economy).

For the past five years, the food industry--especially the produce industry (fruits and vegetables)--has been developing a campaign called "5-a-Day." They want everyone to eat five helpings of fruits and vegetables each day. This is a multi-million-dollar food-industry campaign, directed by the Produce for Better Health Foundation. Because we read food industry publications like Produce News, Supermarket News and The Packer, we know that the food corporations are banking on this campaign to provide greatly increased profits for agrichemical food growers. That's why they went nuts when Food & Water struck their Achilles heel, which is the fact that most of the fruits and vegetables in supermarkets today contain pesticide residues that can cause disease.

This is a dirty little secret that the food industry doesn't want anyone talking about. In fact, agribusiness corporations are so eager to close off discussion of toxic pesticide residues on food that the industry has been campaigning state by state in recent years to pass "food disparagement" laws making it a crime to criticize agricultural products without "a sound scientific basis."

Such "banana laws" (as they are called) are now on the books in eleven states (Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas) and they are under consideration in California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington state. Further, the food industry is trying to stick a "food disparagement" provision into the 1996 Farm Bill, which at this writing is still being bitterly debated in Congress.

It seems clear that these banana laws will be declared unconstitutional when they are challenged in court, but it will be a long, expensive fight--probably costing upwards of half a million dollars to litigate. As a result, such laws will very likely have a chilling effect on journalists and others who might be inclined to discuss the possibility that pesticide-laced foods aren't as healthy for you as fruits and vegetables that are free of poisonous residues.

Proponents of banana laws openly admit that their purpose is to silence food-safety activists. In Florida, anyone found guilty of "agricultural disparagement" must pay a fine equal to three times the estimated dollar amount of damage done to agribusiness plaintiffs. The Georgia statute defines disparagement as "the willful or malicious dissemination to the public in any manner of false information that a perishable food product or commodity is not safe for human consumption" and defines false information as "not based on reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data." It's anybody's guess what "reasonable" and "reliable" mean.

We can recall a time not long ago when "reasonable" and "reliable" data showed that diethylstilbestrol (DES) and DDT were both "safe" for humans and the environment. Unfortunately those "reasonable" and "reliable" data were quite wrong. The food industry flatly denies that anyone has ever been harmed by the roughly 600 million pounds of toxic chemicals that have been intentionally sprayed on the nation's food and fiber crops each year for the past 50 years.

Bob Carey, president of the Produce Marketing Association in Newark, Delaware, told Supermarket News that he was "dismayed and appalled" by the Food & Water advertisement which said thousands of Americans are killed each year by pesticide residues. "No one... has ever been harmed by eating fresh produce properly treated with crop protection tools," Carey told the News. He told the Packer, "Produce on store shelves and on restaurant plates is safe."

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association called the statements in the ad "pure fabrication." David Moore, president of the Western Growers Association said that comparing the hazards of fresh produce to assault weapons was "tantamount to yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater."

Falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded theater has been used by the U.S. Supreme Court as a legal test for determining when society has the right to limit a person's Constitutional right of free speech. But suppose it is true that pesticides kill more people than assault rifles do each year. Then Mr. Carey, Mr. Stenzel, Mr. Moore are making false statements that would tend to harm people by inducing them to consume toxic chemicals.

(We agree that organic, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables are excellent for health. However, putting poison on your salad just doesn't make sense to us.)

So who's right? Unfortunately, good data are scarce. The only book-length study of pesticide hazards was published by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1987. The NAS reported in 1987 that they could find "very limited actual data" regarding pesticide residues on food.

David Pimental at Cornell University pointed out in 1993 that "U.S. analytical methods now employed detect only about one-third of the more than 600 pesticides in use." So estimates must be substituted for real data.

Fifty years into pesticide technology, this lack of data is shocking and pathetic. (Ask yourself, who benefits from the absence of such data?)

The NAS study restricted itself to pesticides in and on food. It omitted pesticide exposures that occur as a result of drinking pesticide-contaminated ground water, a phenomenon that is very common in parts of the U.S.

Pesticides come in 3 flavors: herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. According to the NAS, about 480 million pounds of herbicides are used annually in the U.S.; of these, 300 million pounds (62.5%) are agents that "the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] presumes to be oncogenic or for which positive oncogenicity data are currently under review by the agency."

Oncogenic means tumor-producing. The NAS estimate omitted two large-volume herbicides, atrazine and 2,4-D, because EPA received data indicating oncogenicity of these chemicals after the NAS study was completed. Quantities of oncogenic insecticides are not described in detail in the NAS study.

Insecticides are described in terms of acre treatments; one acre-treatment is defined as one acre to which one pesticide has been applied one time. NAS says that presumed oncogens make up between 35% and 50% of all insecticidal acre-treatments. About 90% of all fungicides show positive results in oncogenicity tests. These oncogenic fungicides represent from 70 million to 75 million of the 80 million pounds of all fungicides applied annually in the United States.

The NAS committee worked with a 1985 list of 53 pesticides that EPA considered oncogenic. However, an estimate of oncogenic potency was only available for 28 of the 53, or 53%. In other words, NAS found that it could not estimate the risks for 47%--roughly half--of the pesticides that EPA identified as oncogenic because necessary data on oncogenic potency were not available. The NAS therefore restricted its analysis to the 28 pesticides for which data existed.

NAS used EPA's data and EPA's risk assessment methods. NAS says that, in doing risk assessments, EPA "tries to make necessary assumptions in a way that minimizes the chance of underestimating risks."

"The result is that these [NAS] risk assessments probably overstate true oncogenic risk," NAS said. Risk refers to incidence of cancer cases, not death. The NAS said there are four reasons why its risk estimates may overstate the risk, and four reasons why its estimates may understate the risk. Reasons why NAS estimates may overstate the risk: ·

In extrapolating from high-dose tumor incidence data to low-dose estimates, conservative assumptions have been made; · NAS assumed that all acres of all crops are treated with the pesticides which are registered for use on those crops; · NAS assumed that residues are always present at the legally allowable level, when in fact they are usually present at lower levels; · NAS assumes that daily exposure occurs during a 70-year lifetime.

Reasons why NAS may have understated the risk: ·
-- NAS lacked toxicological data for some active ingredients and for most "inert" ingredients, degradation products, and metabolites. [So-called "inerts" make up the bulk of most pesticides and are closely-held secrets. Some "inerts" are toxic in their own right. Likewise, metabolites and degradation by-products can be more poisonous than the parent compound; for example, DDE is more toxic than its parent, DDT.] ·
-- The models used for extrapolating from animal data to humans may have been insufficiently conservative in some respects. ·
-- Certain routes of exposure were omitted. ·
-- Possible synergistic (multiplier) effects of pesticides and metabolites) were omitted from consideration.

NAS estimated that the total risk from the 28 pesticides was 5.85 cancers per thousand people per lifetime. Dividing this by 70 (years in a lifetime) and multiplying it by the number of groups of 1000 in the U.S. population (250,000 such groups) yields an annual estimated pesticide-caused cancer incidence of 20,800 in the United States. If half of the new pesticide-caused cancers each year result in death, this brings NAS's estimate of annual deaths from pesticides-in-food to 10,400 per year.

How does this compare to deaths by assault rifles?

Peter Montague is editor of the Environmental Research Foundation and Rachel's Environmental and Health Weekly. To subscribe to the email newsletter, which is free, send email to rachel-weekly-request@world.std.com with the single word SUBSCRIBE in the message. For a footnoted version of the columns on which this article was based, find RACHEL #480 and 481 on ftp.std.com/periodicals/rachel or gopher.std.com or contact the Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403, fax (410) 263-8944 or internet: erf@rachel.clark.net.

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